The Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport has been selected this week as the first site for a virtual air traffic control tower project.
The Federal Aviation Administration in collaboration with the Colorado Aeronautics Division selected the airport for its first site in the nation virtual air traffic control system, which employs advanced sensor technology.
The only other virtual tower system in the country is in Leesburg, Va., though that was installed by a private business, rather than the FAA.
“This is kind of a very innovative type of technology that really hasn’t been developed or tested, and to be on the ground floor of that testing brings a lot of benefits,” said Jason Licon, airport manager.
Licon said the system will bring an advanced level of safety for airport users and at a reduced cost — other towers can cost up to $27 million, he said.
“It’ll bring safety because a lot of those different types of aircrafts operate at (different) speeds. … Making sure they’re spaced well enough so the safety level is enhanced is going to be a good thing,” Licon said.
Northern Colorado has seen a lot of growth in recent years, Licon said, and the virtual tower is a way to better meet regional transportation needs.
“Ultimately, this is something that will need to happen one way or another to accommodate traffic in the airport,” he said.
Loveland City Councilor Hugh McKean, who sits on the airport’s steering committee, said as of now, the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport has non-towered communication where pilots would just “announce their intentions” on a universal communications frequency.
“The difference between that and a tower is that a tower will manage the traffic,” McKean said.
Licon said a tower would “provide a second set of eyes.”
Without the tower, “the responsibility for collision avoidance, sequencing and knowing the local procedures lies solely with the pilot,” according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
With a virtual tower, a series of sensory devices and cameras will collect data and feed the information into a central location, and from that, a controller will be able to communicate with pilots by radio.
“Airlines will enjoy it because they are in a controlled airspace situation,” McKean said, adding that one of the reasons Allegiant Airlines gave for pulling out of the Fort Collins-Loveland airport was the airline didn’t want to fly in uncontrolled air traffic.
“It’ll be a little more cumbersome for general aviation but not tremendously,” McKean said.
The airport in Durango was chosen as the secondary site, the next airport where the system would be implemented if the FAA decides to expand the pilot.
The cost of the test phase of the program is estimated to be about $5.9 million, which would come from the Colorado Aviation Fund — aviation fuel taxes, which the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics collects.
The Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport will be responsible for providing the infrastructure services for the project.
Completion of equipment installation is expected by the spring of 2016.
The Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport was selected based on a variety of factors, according to Colorado Division of Aeronautics Director David Ulane.
Those factors include the traffic mix, runway orientation, level of support from the local community and proximity to the FAA’s Approach and Air Route Traffic Control Centers in Denver and Longmont.
Ulane said there wasn’t a formal application process, but staff from both agencies identified an initial batch of airports and made the final selection based on technical criteria and site visits.
Regular air traffic control towers, Ulane said, cost a lot of money to not only construct but maintain and staff. And when an air traffic control tower is no longer needed, it can’t just be picked up and moved. The virtual tower changes that.
“It obviates the need for a brick and mortar air traffic control tower,” Ulane said.
Where the Fort Collins-Municipal Airport’s virtual tower will be located has still not been decided, Ulane said, but it will be part of the evaluation process as the project moves forward.